Cal Ripken was all over your television set last week. He did a guest spot on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated on a Fox Network special Sunday night.
In short, nothing has changed. The demand for his time and the marketability of his squeaky-clean, Chevy-tough image has not diminished since he broke Lou Gehrig's long-standing record for consecutive games played on Sept. 6.
And, after three months of pondering the magnitude of that achievement, he said yesterday that he does not anticipate any change in his approach to the game or his attitude toward the streak.
"I don't think I've changed my perspective about the streak," said Ripken, who was given his Sportsman of the Year trophy by incoming Sports Illustrated editor Bill Colson at a Camden Yards news conference yesterday. "I'm still trying to understand why it's such a big deal. I'm still grappling with that."
Ripken long has maintained that the streak was simply a byproduct of his desire to play every day, rather than an obsession with breaking one of the most sacred records in professional sports. He insisted again yesterday that the streak would go on as long as he was healthy enough to play and productive enough to warrant an everyday place in the Orioles' lineup.
That isn't expected to be an issue in 1996. Ripken is coming off another solid season and new manager Davey Johnson -- responding to speculation that he might encourage Ripken to get more rest -- did not equivocate when he was asked recently whether he plans to sit baseball's newest immortal anytime soon.
"No," Johnson said, "I want to work in Baltimore for a long time."
There is one more milestone ahead. Ripken's streak stands at 2,153, which still is 62 games shy of the 2,215-game playing streak of former Japanese star Sachio Kinugasa. If all goes well, Ripken will break that record June 13 in Kansas City, but that event is not expected to generate anything near the kind of attention that was focused on Baltimore Sept. 5 and 6. Ripken and the Orioles, in fact, rarely have acknowledged that there is anything beyond the Gehrig record.
The only way the streak is going to end is if Ripken suffers an injury that prevents him from taking the field or decides himself that it is time to come out of the lineup. Even he had to grudgingly acknowledge yesterday that the situation may be out of the manager's hands, even as he insisted that it should not be left in his.
"People think I have the power to say yes or no," Ripken said. "I could have some input, but I don't want to change the way the game is played. I like to have control over every other aspect of my life, but not over whether I play. In some sense, all the attention has painted any manager into a corner, but I'm not going to say that it's not going to end until I say so.
"I'd like to think I would be shown the respect of a meeting before a decision was made, but as far as a manager saying, 'You're coming out,' and me saying, 'No, I'm not,' no, that wouldn't be right."
Ripken was named Sportsman of the Year by both Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News this week, an indication that it was not a difficult choice. The man who broke Gehrig's seemingly unapproachable record did it at a time when Major League Baseball needed a wholesome hero to counteract the negative effects of a bitter and protracted labor dispute. Ripken took that responsibility seriously, staying long after many home games to sign autographs and reinforce the fragile link between baseball and its fans.
Now, he is looking forward to a return to normalcy in 1996 and, perhaps, a long-awaited return to the playoffs.
"We have a strong nucleus and we played well at the end of last year," Ripken said. "It's so early that you don't really know how the team will shape up, but going into spring training with the nucleus we have and the prospect of improving on that nucleus makes me very excited."
So does the possibility that the Orioles will reacquire Bill Ripken to fill a utility infield role.
"I hear the rumors and read the papers," Ripken said. "Until that actually happens, I'm not going to get caught up in the rumors. I've said before that I took for granted the years I played with Billy and I've said that he was clearly the best second baseman I've ever played with. Now that I've heard the rumors, I hope they're true."
NOTE: The annual Tops in Sports banquet will be held Jan. 12 at Towson State. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro will be honored as the Orioles' 1995 MVP and Cleveland Indians general manager John Hart will be honored as Executive of the Year. Orioles prospects Rocky Coppinger and Scott McClain will receive the club's minor-league awards. Tickets are $50 and can be obtained by calling (410) 321-5772.